If you had one shot…

It’s obviously a good thing to send girls to school, right? Not so simple:

I think, in the case of education, it’s complex, because you can send a girl to school, she can receive a lousy curriculum that teaches her about things that she won’t be able to put to use in her life. She can be sexually harassed at school, on the way to school, on the way home from school. She can find it very difficult when she menstruates to be at school and she may have no opportunities in the labor market afterwards.

This is Andrea Cornwall, speaking with Prue Clark and Owen Barder in the Gender and Development podcast of Development and Drums. She is arguing against “one-shot solutions” carried out by projects with narrowly-defined targets. It’s refreshing to hear someone make an argument against measuring success in with a limited number of quantifiable indicators, the “X number of people educated”. Andrea argues for focussing more on process than results in order to better make changes in the context of exclusion rather than symptoms of it.

Part of the issue of quality rather than quantity is that quantity doesn’t necessarily take into account problems with process. Maybe the process is creating problems (as in the examples above), or maybe it is creating new exclusions. If your target is to send 10,000 kids to school, you might try to find the ones it was easy to get to school rather than the ones it was harder to get to school. If you find out that it’s harder and more expensive to, say, send children with disabilities to school, you might focus on other children. Rather than worrying about the process of who you were and weren’t excluding, you would worry about reaching the overall target.

Andrea prefers a “bigger-picture” approach that would take into account the context of the experiences of the girls who were or weren’t going to school: the wider environment and gender relations within it. She argues for challenging gender relations, making sure changes in power are actually part of “empowerment”:

people coming together for themselves and with their own agendas, not being put into groups for a microcredit scheme where they just come and sign-off and get their money and go away again.

And hearing this is also a breath of fresh air. Rather than measuring the number of community or self-help groups a project has formed, Andrea has given us a practical definition to see if the groups are being empowered – following their own agendas – or whether this is “emnemt”, empowerment without the power, people brought together under the agenda of the organisation paying for it.

But I have two reservations about an argument that depends on changing context.

The first, “one-shot” solutions can lead to changes in context themselves. I’ve heard something similar to the argument against sending girls to school as reasons for children with disabilities not going to mainstream schools: even if they were admitted to a school, how would they travel there each day? Even if they could get to school, would the teacher give them any attention? Would they be bullied by the other children? Would they learn anything? The answer people gave that case was that disabled children needed a special school, and that we would have to wait for that special school to be provided.

Of course changing context is necessary. But context can be changed in direct or indirect ways. The mere fact of children going to school who weren’t going to school is in itself a change in context. If the change brought about negative consequences such as violence or neglect then that would be reason to stop it. But the change could also bring about new solutions that weren’t pre-programmed, such as methods to include children with disabilities in a mainstream classroom. Arguing that we have to change the entire context rather than make specific interventions is an attitude that easily leads to doing nothing at all.

Secondly, changing the context of gender relations also has potential problems that weren’t really addressed in the podcast. Andrea suggests funding national or regional organisations that could fund “mobilizing and organizing which brings about real change”. These would have longer commitments and be able to “support women in their own pathways of change”. I agree entirely, but it’s a shame that the podcast didn’t get to explore this further. Isn’t the idea of empowerment vulnerable to the same ideas of sending girls to school – they can be empowered but will that help if they don’t have opportunities in the labour market afterwards? Isn’t giving to national or regional organisations quite a top-down approach? What makes sure that these movements don’t reproduce different power inequalities such as those of wealth and class or exclusion of people with disabilities?

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